Ani Balkhian, Aleppo NGO’s Founding President Recognized with “Woman of Courage” Award

On December 11, Armenia’s international community, including the office of the United Nations, the delegations of the European Union and the Council of Europe, and the embassies of the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, came together at the Universal Rights Awards Ceremony. Since 2012, this annual ceremony has honored individuals working to promote human rights, freedom of expression, diversity, religious acceptance, democracy, transparency, legal reform, and equal rights in Armenia.

During the ceremony, the Founding President of Aleppo Compatriotic Charitable Organization-NGO (Aleppo-NGO), Ani Balkhian, was recognized with the “Woman of Courage” award for the humanitarian programs she has organized, especially the “Save a Life” program. “Save a Life” was established to assist Syrian-Armenians lacking the financial means to escape the Syrian War and resettle in Armenia. Thanks to Ms. Balkhian’s leadership, the program overcame major obstacles and ultimately rescued over 480 individuals.

The “Woman of Courage” award was presented by Mr. Bradley Busetto, the resident coordinator of the United Nations in Armenia. In his speech, Mr. Busetto noted, “During times of crisis and armed conflict, human rights are always in danger, and it is at these times that the few with the courage to help others step forward. Ms. Balkhian is among those few. Without hesitation, she set out on a mission to save lives, helping many escape the grip of the Syrian conflict. Her courage was also evident after these families arrived in Armenia when she continued helping newly-arrived Syrian families. I have the honor to present Ms. Balkhian with the ‘Woman of Courage’ award, in recognition of her exceptional commitment to saving human lives and advocating for refugee protection, as well as her brave steps toward promoting the integration of displaced families from Syria.”

In her speech accepting the award, Ms. Balkhian thanked the UN’s Armenia office and the diplomatic representatives, both for the award and for the valuable work they have undertaken to develop civil society and protect human rights in Armenia.

Ms. Balkhian emphasized that the award also belongs to the humanitarians and philanthropists who supported the work of Aleppo-NGO, such as Rachel Nadjarian, Talar Tcholakian, Carmen Gulbenkian, Maral Karakashian, and the Parish Council of the St. Kevork Church in Houston, Texas, led by Mr. Vreij Kolandjian. It was their contributions, she said, along with the staff and volunteers of Aleppo-NGO, that made the “Save a Life” program possible.

Ms. Balkhian also communicated her gratitude to Mr. Christoph Bierwirth, the High Commissioner of the UNHCR in Armenia, and Anahid Hayrapetyan, the UNHCR’s external relations coordinator, for their tireless work on behalf of Syrian-Armenian refugees.

Finally, Ms. Balkhian congratulated the other award recipients and expressed her hope that peace, security, and justice will prevail in the world, especially in Syria.

Other people and organizations working in Armenia were also honored during the ceremony. The “Promoting Justice and Transparency” award was presented to the Union of Informed Citizens NGO and its program director, Daniel Ionissyan. The “Government Reformer” award was presented to Mr. Vigen Kocharyan, the “Media Excellence” award was presented to MediaLab Newsroom Laboratory, the “Freedom Defender” award was presented to Isabella Sargsyan, and the Franco-German Prize for Equal Chances” was presented to Agate-Rights Defense Center for Women with Disabilities.

Ani Balkhian’s speech during the award at the Universal Rights Awards Ceremony

“On April 11, 2015, I woke up with the news that my mother’s apartment building in Aleppo had been bombed, causing the death of dozens of innocent people including our neighbor Maha Diyarbakerli and her 22-year old daughter Dana to whom my mother used to teach French years ago when Dana was just a child.

In the following weeks, when the conflict in Aleppo reached its peak and the situation became unbearable, hundreds of Syrian-Armenians requested Aleppo-NGO’s assistance to escape Syria.

When I proposed the launching of the “Save a Life” project at our executive committee meeting, everyone was skeptical about our ability to fundraise and implement the project.

More importantly, the decision to resettle Armenians from Syria to Armenia was an unpopular one because it went against the pan-Armenian position of “preserving the Armenian community in Syria at all cost.”

Nevertheless, despite the criticism we faced from outside and inside and the skepticism of our committee members from within, we pushed through with the project, and helped rescue more than 480 Syrian-Armenians by moving them to Armenia in the past two years.

I stand here today humbled to be receiving the “Woman of Courage” Award, but honestly this award does not only belong to me but to the countless humanitarian philanthropists like Rachel Nadjarian, Talar Tcholakian, Carmen Gulbenkian, Maral Karakashian, the Parish Council of the St. Kevork Church in Texas lead by Mr. Vreij Kolandjian who extensively contributed to the rescuing of Syrian-Armenian lives.

This award also belongs to the IDeA Foundation, which has financed the Save a Life project since October 2016 and helps us to evacuate civilians from Syria.

It also belongs to the dedicated volunteers and staff of the Aleppo-NGO like Dzovig Baytarian, Rita Karagulian, Silva Kablanian, Talin Chemberjian, Hayasa Tahmazyan, Sarkis Balkhian and many others.

I am thankful to the international and diplomatic community in Armenia for this award and for their continued support for the development of civil society in Armenia and the advancement of democracy and human rights.

Most importantly, I want to thank the UN office in Armenia, especially Mr. Christoph Bierwirth and Mrs. Anahit Hayrapetyan of the UNHCR for their unwavering support to the Syrian refugees over the past several years.

Mr. Bierwirth’s leadership has been instrumental in protecting the rights of Syrians in Armenia.

Finally, I pray that peace, security, and justice prevail in the world, especially in Syria.

Thank you again for the award, and congratulations to all the nominees and winners being recognized here tonight”.